Thursday, January 28, 2016

Perhaps the government could be part of the solution for a change

I was in Calais on Monday visiting a group of people derisively dismissed yesterday by David Cameron as a 'bunch of migrants'. Like his 'swarm' comments of last year, it shows a contemptable lack of human empathy on the part of our nation's leader, and proves him to be an embarrassment to civilised people.

The people I was with were a group of hard working community leaders, who in the teeth of almost insuperable odds and constant provocation from a French police service hell-bent on stirring conflict with the camp residents, are making a community in the sand dunes that actually works.

I spent time with a Sudanese community leader who toured the section of the camp for which he has some responsibily distributing tickets so that those who run community kitchens could go to the distribution centre to pick up a week's supply of food. The community kitchens are modelled on the one he has been running since the summer when he arrived in the camp. They are a way of ensuring people get fed, but much more than that, they are a way of creating community, of ensuring that the isolated are drawn into fellowship, that weaker and more softly spoken ones receive an equitable share of the food on offer. They make the camp a more civilised place.

Of course, as with all human activity, it is not without its problems. And my friend spends a good deal of his time an energy working to resolve disputes between people from different nations and ethnic groups. It's a burden he carries with grace and good humour most of the time. It is a huge honour and privilege to stand by his side and support the work he is doing.

He, to use this government's divisive language, is a striver; he is striving to make the best of the awful hand life has dealt him. He has fled a government that wanted him dead, leaving a wife nd children in the care of other family members; he has made a perilous journey across the sea and through Europe to the relative safety of the jungle. And having arrived, he has set about seeking to create a community that works in the interests of as many of the residents of the camp as possible.

So, instead of sneering at Jeremy Corbyn for hanging out with a bunch of migrants, perhaps the Prime Minister should follow in Corbyn's footsteps and visit the jungle, sit and eat with these people and learn what it means to a builder of community not a casual dismisser of of people's hopes.

Perhaps the government could be part of the solution to this crisis and not a bystander making things much worse for everyone involved.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

The fears that drive decision-making

Fear is not a big driver in my life. Oh, there are those inner anxieties about looking foolish, even being found out, that make me circumspect around strangers, occasionally wary of expressing my true opinion even among friends. But really, I've never known fear.

I became acutely aware of this while listening to a charming and reasonable French official. He was dressed in a suit and roll-neck sweater, with mousy hair, slightly unkempt falling onto his collar, as if he was channeling Alain Delon. He was from the Calais prefect's office, accompanied by a senior civil servant from France's equivalent of the Home Office, and he was addressing a mixed group of muddy people in the Kabul cafe in the heart of the Jungle.

He was urging his audience to seriously consider seeking asylum in France, leaving the mud and inadequate shelters of the jungle and moving to an assessment centre, with three square meals a day, showers, electricity, your own room and the chance to be given documents that confer the right to live in the fifth republic. What's not to like about this offer?

And yet the audience's eyes betray a fear that seems out of place with his offer. Then the audience's questions give voice to those fears, at first gently, expressed as a kind of quizzical skepticism about the offer. This quickly gives way to very specific fears of racism, of being refused and sent back to the country from which they fled, of being denied what they most seek.

It quickly became apparent that this was a classic dialogue of the deaf. The urbane Frenchman was making a genuine offer of help. It was heard as a threat to take the last vestiges of dignity from his audience. Why are they so fearful? It's not hard to answer that, but it is hard to grasp how fundamentally those fears drive their daily lives.

His audience consisted of men (of the camp residents present, 100% were males of fighting age). Many had been in the jungle for six months or more. Others were more recent arrivals. All had been driven from their homes and families by fear, the fear of death from indiscriminate bombing and street-to-street fighting, the fear of a knock on the door in the dead of night that would result in torture, imprisonment, being paraded before a kangaroo court. On the journey from Syria and Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia or Egypt, fear had kept them awake at night - would they make it across the next border, would they be beaten up in the road, robbed of what little they can carry, would they fall ill, be separated from family and friends, would they drown in the flimsy boats that carry them and their hopes across the angry Mediterranean, would they be denied help because of their nationality, religion, colour, clothes, language, tone of voice, haunted wariness?

For months fear has kept them alive, driven them on in their quest for somewhere warm and safe, somewhere where they are not afraid to sleep, take their eyes off their possessions, relax their guard. And they have found that place in the jungle. For all its chill wind and glutinous mud, for all its primitive sanitation, bad shelter, food and clothes shortages and occasional friction with a neighbour, it feels safer than anywhere they've been in the past seemingly endless months of travelling, and before that of being blasted and hunted, shot at, starved and denied any human rights in what used to be home. Now, in short, the jungle feels like home.

So however urbane the Frenchman, however emollient his tone, however reasonable his offer, it is met with waves of fear. Underlying all the other fears the residents have faced is the fear that nothing can be trusted any more. The states that they have fled are broken in every way; none of the institutions that ought to have protected them have come to their aid; the markets that gave them the chance of making a living to support them and their families lie shattered, the state that pledged protection for its citizens has fractured. So the man from the prefect's office represents something that none of his audience believe amounts to anything other than the fear of being oppressed. Hence his offer falls on deaf ears.

The more so as his government works to complete a new village, Campement de la Lande, which will eventually be home to 1500 residents of the jungle. It’s cost the French state 25 million Euro and people will start moving in in a few days. Apparently preference is being given to those whose tents were removed to make way for the building of the new village. The homes, made of converted shipping containers, have heating, electricity, access to running water and clean toilets, and are certainly a step-up from anything currently available in the jungle.

But at what cost? Even people from ACTED, the NGO working in the rest of the camp to put in sanitation and better toilets, think the lack of services for the refugees within the village is a mistake. Currently the jungle residents are helped by an army of volunteers from all over Europe who provide everything from hot meals, to food for residents to cook themselves, to clothes and shoes, to entertainment and the opportunity to be creative, learn languages, continue their education. None of that will move to the Campement de la Lande. Rather it will be a fenced community accessed by residents only by means of hand-print scanners.

There’s precious little trust in evidence and eventually trust needs to be built and fear overcome; perhaps that’s what a ragbag of volunteers and peace-makers can achieve in the coming weeks. For now, the residents trust themselves and their instinct for survival. Hence the nightly cat-and-mouse with the baffled police that line the camp perimeter and dot the motorways as they try to make a run to the perceived safety of the UK. And every-so-often, someone does make it and everyone else’s hopes are kept alive.

The police appear to have a new tactic in this game. As we stood in St Michael's a man asked us for shoes. He sat in his socks on a bench. 'Why have you no shoes?' We asked him. Because the police took them last night, he told us. It appears that he had tried and failed to scale a fence and the police who caught him, took his shoes so he wouldn't try it again. Cruel but effective. Is this a widespread police tactic? I’ve no idea but perhaps it explains why everyone in the camp constantly wants shoes! Perhaps the police could be persuaded to drop every pair they confiscate back at the camp, maybe at the listening caravan, so they can at least be recycled if not reunited with their original owner.

The Urbane French official told his audience that if they wanted to claim in the UK, they might get help to do that in an assessment centre. David Cameron would not want to hear that but then he should have a presence in this camp talking directly to the many residents who have a good claim to asylum within our borders. People like the 19-year-old Afghan we met at Jungle Books. Here a month, shattered, terrified, despairing, he has a brother in Birmingham who, for all he knows might be his only living relative. How hard it was to leave him in the camp, his pleading eyes seeking some kind of solution to his plight.

I comforted myself that I was leaving him with another Afghan, also wanting asylum in the UK. He’s a pharmacist who had worked for both the British and Americans in ISAF, service that resulted in his family being killed by the Taliban. He'll look after him, I thought, while we take up his case with lawyers in the UK. Moments before, he had put my mobile number into his phone with the name 'UK Dad'. When I told him I had a name, he replied that he didn't have a father apart from me. Moments like this tear you in half.

Moments like talking with a Sudanese community leader about the load he is carrying, knowing that in five minutes I'll be climbing into my car and heading off for the warmth and security of my home, where my greatest fear is that we have enough milk for a hot drink before bed-time, leaving my brother to make community and keep the peace in this ever-more permanent, ever more volatile township.

Of course, our governments are also driven by fear: fear of public opinion turning against them if they are overly-generous to refugees, fear of losing control of their borders, fear of looking like a soft touch in a tough world. More and more I believe that love drives out fear, that as we reach out in friendship and peace to the stranger in our midst, we find ourselves relaxing into unexpectedly warm and deep, mutually beneficial relationships. It’s what Jesus told me to expect and, not surprisingly, I’ve found it to be true on every visit so far to the jungle.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Waiting for the Christmas that will bring them hope

On Wednesday I'm returning to Calais to visit friends in the camp known as the jungle. It'll be Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas, so one of my travelling companions will be bringing food and other gifts for the community as they celebrate the coming of their saviour.

I was last there the Monday before our Christmas. We arrived to be told that an MP was visiting and that we should go and join those waiting for him in the library. We joined a group hanging out in and around Jungle Books. It was a mixed bunch of English and French volunteers and camp residents. And we waited. Finally, we told our friend that we were heading off to catch up with some other friends and we'd return when the prestigious visitor showed up (he should text us).

For many in the camp, waiting is a full-time activity (I've talked about this before). People wait for food and clothes, for the possibility of better shelter, for a politician who might just have the key to unlock their status (of course, he never does!).  As our Ethiopian Orthodox brothers and sisters end their advent with Christmas, just as we have recently ended ours, for residents in the jungle advent feels like an eternity, almost Narnian in its longevity - always winter and never Christmas.

In the library I met an Afghan pharmacist who's using his wait to tend the wounds of those who tried to scale the fences and fallen foul of the French police. He has a daily line of visitors with various lacerations, bumps and bruises. When he isn't sticking plasters on deep wounds, he is ensuring that the library runs smoothly, that people have all they need to continue their education - learning English, learning to read, writing letters, etc.

He worked in an Afghan hospital run first by the US army and then by the British. Because of this his family was targeted by the Taliban; half of them were killed. When ISAF withdrew, he fled for his life. Now he's in the jungle. More than many residents, he's here because of us; I am responsible for the limbo he is in. He served the needs of the UK state in its war in his country but we refused him asylum. So now the only home he has is the makeshift one he's made for himself in the jungle.

As we headed for little Syria, we met an Egyptian man with whom we fell into a conversation. He showed his hands, cut by the razor wire our government has spent £7.5m installing along the motorway and around the tunnel and ferry port entrances. I commiserated with him, wished the fences weren't there. He showed me a sim card for a Three mobile that he'd acquired. We talked about how to set up his account. We parted expressing the hope that one day we'll have this conversation in England. It all felt considerably surreal.

There were some positive things happening as we walked around the camp. ACTED diggers were installing drainage pipes in Afghan Square (yes, parts of the camp are being given names by the residents). And the French government are putting in a container village - consisting of properly converted shipping containers, complete with windows and radiators, with mains drainage and front doors - for 2,200 residents. It's a very good development but it raises the question of what happens to the other 2,500 to 3,000 residents of the existing camp when it opens and how will the government decide who gets offered a place in this village.

But even with all these developments, the overwhelming sense of life in the camp is of waiting. Despite all the building and enterprise (cafes and restaurants, shops and bike hire outfits), people in the camp are waiting for their lives to start. People who ran businesses, worked in hospitals, had families and neighbours, hopes and dreams, want to be those people again. Above all else, they want to be those people back home where they lived and loved before war and oppressive governments drove them away. But for the time being, they will settle be offered temporary asylum in the UK where they already know the language, have some family or friendship connections and are prepared to work hard making themselves and us all that little bit richer.

So, how about it mr Cameron, will you rise to the challenge of offering these people hope or will you stay small, pandering the little englander faction in your broken party? It's a tough call but lots of your fellow brits are willing to make the right choice.